Tips for doing Bad Things to Your Characters.
As I write this I am watching an old episode of CSI. Ray Langston, (Laurence Fishburn) is testifying in the trial of a psychotic who stabbed him. It is an excruciating series of scenes, definitely not for the faint of heart.
As a child when my mother took me to the movies I would watch out for bad things happening to characters I liked. I used to whisper, "Is the music bad, mommy?" (Side note: I do not remember this but she told the story frequently.)
As writers, we need to be brave, for we must first create characters we like, and then send them into situations where the music is very bad indeed, and watch as they struggle, as they grapple with issues that are life- or love- threatening and as they succeed or fail because that stress is what makes a story work. It is the engine that drives the writing bulldozer that Steven King talks about.
But I am a softie. With few exceptions, I like the characters I write about — they are my friends — and I don’t like to see them hurt. (Side note number two: I used to be reluctant to talk about this aspect of my writing, the fact that for me the characters are real. Then I read the essay by Thomas Harris at the beginning of Red Dragon in which he describes how he did a lot of the writing in an old farmhouse miles from a town. And he thought Hannibal Lecter might very well be watching him. Can you imagine?)
So, given that if I were in high school I’d take Pollyanna to the prom instead of one of the Heathers, how do I put my characters through very difficult situations? It ain't easy. In my most recent novella, Buzzkill, my heroine is kidnapped and handcuffed to a chair with a black cloth bag over her head. One of her captors fondles her breast. This is the first scene of this sort that I have ever written. It was not part of the early drafts of the novella. It made me uncomfortable to write, and it's uncomfortable to talk about now. But I did it. Here’s how I handled it, which leads to
Tip Number One: Write the Horror Separately
I actually came up with that scene during the second draft, and it bothered me. So I wrote it “sidestream,” not as part of the manuscript. The scene where she’s handcuffed and molested as well as the resolution at the end where the creepy guy gets his (heh heh) existed first as separate documents. This allowed me to do two things. First, I could look at those events separately and decide if I wanted this dark piece as a part of my story’s mosaic. Second, if I decided that I didn't want it, there was no cutting involved; the scenes were not part of the manuscript; there were no transitions to undo. (Raise your hands if you have a hard time cutting. I do.)
Tip Number Two: Make the Horror Mean Something
Let horrific events force your characters to grow. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Did Nietzsche know what he was talking about? Maybe. Let’s get back to Ray Langston on CSI. The writers put him through hell. Did he grow and learn? It would be a spoiler for me to answer that, but I will say he should have. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes goes through hell, lives for revenge, and at the end he actually learns and grows as a person.
Tip Number Three: Make Sure the Bad Things are an Organic Part of the Story
Always remember your readers are smart and they watch for plot devices. When the music gets bad, they know. For example, one reviewer talking about the first cycle of Spider Man movies, complained, "Peter Parker and his girlfriend break up just so they can get back together.” A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, when Han Solo took the money and ran, it worked, sort of. Today, it would not. Do not include bad stuff just to make it seem real.” In my case, when my heroine was trapped in that warehouse I set it aside and talked to the bad guy. It became clear that he would, indeed, molest her. (Yeah, I talked to him and this is the one audience where I can say that and you, gentle reader, will nod and not call for the men in white coats.)
Tip Number Four: Include Bad Things Even When You Don’t Want To
And now that I have said all that, remember that conflict is what drives a story. This tip is simple: you gotta have it. Just as your hero or heroine must succeed by their own efforts they must have something to succeed against.
While I’m talking about bad things happening, let me moderate this discussion a bit with a word on happy endings. As I’ve said, like ‘em. But I also think they are important for another reason. Bad things do happen to people. Rizzo in Grease feels like a defective typewriter when she misses a period, and isn’t that a great line? Marty McFly in Back to the Future cannot overcome his fear of sending out his band’s audition tape and isn’t that something all writers can relate to? Bad things reflect reality — and so do solutions and happy endings.
In high school I was forced to read a novel that mercifully I have forgotten most of. Hero and heroine fall in love but have a terrible, terrible time because of a misunderstanding. She figures it out. Ta Da! So she writes it all down in a letter and slips it under his door. Ta Da again!
It slides under the carpet in his room; he never sees the letter and their lives are ruined. Oh, well.
Is life like that? Sure, things like that happen all the time. There is a large part of reality as we experience it that is random. But that does not give us a reason for scribbling, “They all were miserable for the rest of their lives. The End.” Part of what we do is provide structure to our world, to layer meaning over the chaos.
Of course this doesn't mean that Hamlet isn’t a great story and you should only watch reruns of Happy Days. But Hamlet’s problems are driven by reasons, mistakes.
So where does that leave us? How do you handle making bad things happen to good people in your stories?
— Try writing it outside of the main narrative, as a separate document. See if it works.
— Make the horror mean something. My wife and I were reading one evening when suddenly she threw her book across the room. “In the last chapter there was a nuclear war and they all died.”
— Make sure the horror is an organic part of the story. Much as I love Game of Thrones, they do throw in an extra beheading once in a while.
— And despite all this, remember that bad things are what makes the story work. They must be in there. Hey, nobody said what we do is easy.
Finally, remember that you’re in charge. The music may be scary, but you can either fix it, or provide meaning to the pain. You can also take your revenge on bad characters, just as I do with my kidnapper. And it's fun!
Now for the quiz.
Does anybody know the letter-under-the carpet novel? I cannot remember.
How do you handle hurting your characters? I’m sure many of you have struggled with this and found solutions. Please share!
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Mark your calendars for Wednesday, April 6, our first anniversary celebration of Write Up A Storm. Get ready for a day of writing and word counts! Details on Monday.